Why Are British Celebs Such Complete Jerks To Trans People?
If you've spent too much time on social media (also known as any time on social media) you've probably noticed that J.K. Rowling has attracted controversy for a variety of anti-trans statements. In September, for example, she promoted an otherwise aggressively feminist website that sells the kind of anti-trans merchandise capable of giving Ben Shapiro an erection he can't satisfy anyone with. One of the site's pins equates transitioning with conversion therapy, and it's all downhill from there.
Relitigating Twitter arguments is like reminiscing over the time you were punched in the kidneys, but in sum Rowling's many opinions have led to a "transgender people" section on her Wikipedia page, the returning of a human rights reward, a lengthy "I'm Not Owned" essay on her website, and enough hot takes to fuel the developing world. She's especially fond of trotting out the old canard that better trans rights will somehow lead to sexual assault open season in women's bathrooms, as though the western world is plagued by conniving rapists waiting to seize a legal pretext (research shows that trans-inclusive bathroom policies don't increase safety risks, while trans people facing "restrictive access" are more likely to be sexually assaulted in their supposedly "proper" washrooms).
Putting aside the fact that Rowling even bothers to use Twitter (if my books had made me a billionaire, I would tweet "Just tipped a generous eight percent on my well done steak," then log off forever), she's not exactly a grumpy old conservative. Rowling is a staunch supporter of Britain's Labour Party, an advocate for strong abortion rights, compared Trump to Voldemort, and generally has the political positions of your hippie aunt who, well, compares Trump to Voldemort. She's also given away piles of money, including one million pounds to help domestic abuse victims and homeless people affected by COVID ... but all of that empathy vanishes the moment trans people are mentioned.
The whole affair could be written off as a weird outlier opinion, but Rowling isn't alone in the category of Generally Well Meaning British Celebrities Who Lose Their Shit When Reminded Of The Existence Of Trans People (GWMBCWLTSWROTEOTPs for short). John Cleese is taking time out of his golden years to tweet jokes that are both transphobic and embarrassingly inept for a comedy legend. Ricky Gervais, the celebrity equivalent of a Reddit user who says they're proving the superior logic of atheism by arguing about it online for eight hours a day, has made anti-trans statements despite previously being a vocal advocate for gay marriage.
And Graham Linehan, creator of The IT Crowd and other hit shows, has been so active in anti-trans advocacy (he called the trans rights movement a cover for "fetishists, con-men, and simply abusive misogynists," and compared hormone treatments to Nazi eugenics, among other fun statements) that he was given a warning by the police for repeatedly harassing a trans woman. He was also banned from Twitter, but made fake accounts to get around the ban and keep spewing hate. It's like if Michael Schur's career petered out and he decided to dedicate the rest of his life to spewing racial slurs because he thought mixed marriage was destroying society.
America isn't exactly a bastion of trans rights, but in Britain anti-trans hate crimes have quadrupled over the last five years, and otherwise tolerant people are happy to declare trans people subhuman (in 2018 a scholar and anti-trans feminist stood on the floor of Parliament and called trans people "parasites," which is both hateful and confusing). A 2017 proposal to revise the onerous and invasive process for changing your legal gender proved to be a particular hotspot, with the campaign against it immediately descending into blatant lies about trans people being predators in waiting. The views of celebrities like Rowling aren't created in a vacuum, and it's instructive to learn where they come from.
For starters, the British media loves to make hay with trans panic stories. Their equivalents to Fox News seem to have ratcheted up already heated rhetoric because they needed something new to get apoplectic about after Brexit failed to create a Marmite-drenched utopia, but otherwise liberal outlets like The Guardian have long made reams of anti-trans statements too (sometimes prompting internal conflict). It's like if MSNBC and HuffPost repeatedly argued that all immigrants were scum but otherwise carried on exactly as they do now. Britain's Labour Party is also split on whether trans people deserve basic human rights, while LGBT rights are one of the few things Democrats can agree on while in-fighting about whether the poor need stimulus money or should just die to stimulate the cremation industry.
But where's all this hate coming from? There are a few theories. It's been pointed out that Britain's journalists tend to come from elite private schools and are about as diverse as an 1800s country club, and hostility to trans rights tends to be accompanied by hostility to the suggestion that going to Eton gave you a leg up in life. One study points a finger at an influential wing of Britain's skeptic movement, and we're not talking "owns a Carl Sagan poster and tells their friends to not waste money on palm readings" skeptics.
These were "all humanities are useless, the world would be better off if it was ruled by cold-hearted technocrats and we'll scream unscientific arguments at you until you agree, please don't listen to all those silly historians and sociologists who say that 'pure, unbiased science' has been used to justify racism, eugenics, virulent homophobia, and genocide" skeptics. This particular circle collapsed after it was revealed to be full of sexist attitudes (but you know, the scientific kind), but some of its members have ended up in important media positions.
More bizarrely, a major British mothering forum became an influential anti-trans echo chamber, like if What to Expect When You're Expecting came with tips on how to beat the gay out of your son. And a wing of anti-trans feminism long out of date in America has deep roots in Britain. One British writer has even suggested that their homeland needs a more American "live and let live" individualism in politics, which is possibly the first positive thing a British citizen has said about American politics since 1776.
All of this is how you can have trans activists be accused of leading an abusive mob who will attack anyone who disagrees with them, yet at the same time have anti-trans statements routinely blare out of every major media publication and the mouths of millionaires who read them. Britain has a long, bleak history of anti-trans media that features lowlights like the Daily Mail mocking Lucy Meadows, a trans teacher, while questioning whether it was appropriate for her to be near children.
The barrage of press coverage was cited by the teacher's coroner after her suicide, which is something to think about the next time giant national outlets complain that people like Rowling are being "silenced" whenever they face even mild criticism. And while Britain may be behind the rest of the world in this particular category, "disproportionately abused people who have been historically denied institutional power are the real oppressors!" is a rhetorical trick we should always watch out for.
Mark is on Twitter and wrote a book.
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